"Tell me about yourself."

Nov 30 "Tell me about yourself."

Alyssa Tulabut

“Tell me about yourself.”

This opening question to any interview was always the most dreaded to me. It required me to be a lot of things: concise, captivating, and clear about who I was. The first, I could practice. The second, I could well enough fake. The third, that’s where the trouble came.

As a Navy brat, I had always prided myself on being able to adapt over the years – to each new town, to each new school, to each new group of people.  But throughout the first two decades of my 23 years, my perception of my identity became muddled. More easily able to identify by my Hogwarts house and my Myers-Briggs personality type than my Asian American sense of self, I did not want anything to do with the Filipino organization at my university when I came to college. Over the years, I'd detached myself from my Asian American identity. I did not want that to be the only thing people would see about me, but I ended up nearly erasing it for myself as well. 

Before moving to Virginia, I experienced different environments as we moved around. I grew up in Washington state among plenty of fellow Filipino neighbors and other Asian American classmates, and I remember my five-year-old self, not yet brainwashed by Western standards of beauty, wishing my eyes were more slanted like my friends’ and Mulan’s. I spent 2nd through 4th grade in Belgium, where my classmates not only came from all over the US, but also Hungary, Spain, Italy, and more. We had a shared experience. Stationed at NATO’s headquarters, my classmates and I were brought together from diverse backgrounds and cultures and all bonded as fish out of water together.

This was not the case in Chesapeake, Virginia, though. Most of my classmates had lived in the town their entire lives, and for many of them, I was probably their first Asian classmate. Not only was I new, but I was also noticeably different. I suddenly was more self-conscious of my slanted eyes and flat nose.

By middle school and high school, I’d collected a myriad of nicknames from well-intentioned friends – “My Asian,” “Asia,” “Lil’ South (Pacific Islander),” and playful mispronunciations of my last name. I’d grown accustomed to wonderment at my family’s rice cooker. I perpetuated the “model minority” myth, excelling academically, playing the flute, and participating in a number of extracurriculars. At the same time, though, I bought into the same fads as everyone else, making my parents buy me skater shoes and eventually overpriced Abercrombie and Fitch clothes. I longed to fit in like your typical teenager but also felt the need to overcompensate in proving my normality because of the color of my skin.

In the fall of 2011, I began my studies at the University of Virginia, another predominantly white institution but with a whole new degree of privilege that I’d only ever seen in reruns of Gilmore Girls. I stayed optimistic, going into sorority rush with a laughable naïveté. By the end of the first couple rounds, it was a wake-up call that most sororities seemed to only have a couple sisters per pledge class who were minorities. I felt that I not only had to make these girls like me, but that I had to make them like me enough to give me a spot over a white girl.

With each round of rush, I became more and more disillusioned. I begrudgingly agreed to see through with the final round of rush (in the snow, might I add), and at one of the houses that was far from what the rest of the Greek system at UVA considered “top tier,” I couldn’t help but notice how many other girls in line were also minorities. As we stood together in the 30-something degree weather in short dresses and high heels, I was exhausted. I was exhausted from continuing to be a consumer of the unhealthiest fad of all: that to be accepted, I had to adhere to others’ standards of normalcy. These standards had been set by people who do not walk through this world the same way I do, and I was done using them as a measurement stick for myself. There is a quote I like that sums up the lesson I learned: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” As so, I set out to use the rest of college to reclaim that joy.

Without necessarily realizing it, my pursuits in both my economics and my psychology majors began gravitating towards race – intersections with socioeconomic status, ethnic discrimination in the workplace, discriminatory hiring practices, implicit biases, the psychology of interracial dating. These projects became tangible extensions of my own internal exploration of my Asian American identity. With a refreshed perspective and nothing to lose, I accepted a couple of new friends' invitations to join them at events hosted by the school’s Filipino organization. Immediately, there was an unspoken sense of comfort and ease that I hadn’t truly experienced since I was about six, something I didn't even necessarily realize was missing.

It was with a debt of gratitude to the AAPI community that I sought an opportunity work in the vein of advocacy when I heard about SEARAC's new Training Manager position, with what seemed like unbelievably perfect timing. It’s been only four months here at SEARAC for me, but there is no other place I’d rather commit my mind, heart, and energy to work towards a racially and socially just society.

And I keep in mind a lesson I learned from one of my assignments from the UVA internship program to interview three people at work. My fellow interns and I saw one common lesson emerge from the responses, across all industries and sectors, and it continues to resonate with me today: Life is nonlinear. So, wherever life may take me over the next 10, 20, or 30, years, I aspire to help create a world where my children have endless opportunities, limited only by their willingness to work hard, a world where they do not feel like they have to hide, sacrifice, or disguise their cultural identities to be palatable to others, and a world where they draw strength and not shame from their slanted eyes and flat noses.


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